The first episode after the pilot is “Tabula Rasa”, Latin for “blank slate”. From the very beginning the series intended to explore the notion of people getting a “fresh start”, who they were before the plane crash and what they did then not mattering. But of course, as the flashbacks always demonstrated, the idea that moving to a new place allows one to make a clean break from the past is nonsense. We carry our pasts around with us. We are not static beings, but who we are now is the sum of who we’ve been. This doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible. But as the survivors discover, change comes not by pretending the past doesn’t exist, but by dealing with the past.
The fact that who we are now is a continuation of who we’ve been up until now has relevance for reflecting on the idea of an afterlife. Since I’ve just read Peter Rollins’ recent book The Fidelity of Betrayal and have found that once again telling stories (even though some of them are old jokes) can be more meaningful than merely analysing an issue in prose, let me offer a pearly gates story for you to consider.
A man finds himself before the pearly gates of heaven, having just died quite suddenly and unexpectedly. St. Peter meets him. “Welcome, friend!” he says, “Would you like to come in?” The man says that he doesn’t yet feel any different, and asks what will change when he goes through the gates. St. Peter explains to him, “You’ll be given a fresh start. Since your past would inevitably influence your ongoing existence in countless negative ways, we will erase all your memories. Since the form in which you existed as a human being was frail and fallible, your body will be replaced by a glorious one incapable of sin or error.”
The man looked at St. Peter puzzled. “If you do all that to me,” he asked, “in what sense will I still me me?”
“Good question,” answered St. Peter. “This new self will still have your name and will incorporate those few elements in your prior existence that were in no way, shape or form entangled with the sin, suffering, and other miseries of human existence.”
“You know what,” the man replied, looking around at the clouds and seeing that there were other people who were outside the pearly gates, “I think I’ll pass. What you are offering would negate the value of everything I’ve ever learned, everything I’ve suffered, everything I’ve done – in short, everything I am!” And at that, he walked away.
St. Peter watched the man until he was out of sight. Then he looked up and said to God “Still no takers.”
“They make me so proud of them, sometimes,” came the cheerful booming voice of God from above.
St. Peter then went away too, to watch Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind…